A Dark Ink Reading

If you’re looking for something fun and unique to do this Halloween season, then let me suggest joining some contributors of Dark Ink: An Anthology Inspired by Horror for a poetry reading.

The event will take place on Zoom on Saturday, Oct. 24 at 7 pm Eastern Time/4 PM Pacific Time. Dark Ink was initially published in 2018 by Moon Tide Press. Most of the initial readings took place in California, since that’s where the press and most of its writers are based. This Zoom reading will allow other contributors to share their work and celebrate the most wonderful time of the year.

For more information about Dark Ink, check out this interview I did with Eric Morago, editor of Moon Tide Press, for Horror Homeroom.

Some Thoughts on “The Haunting of Bly Manor”

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

First, let me apologize for not updating this blog as much as I used to. The sudden shift to teaching virtually has consumed a lot of my time over the last several months. Additionally, I’ve been writing a lot of reviews for HorrOrigins and Signal Horizon Magazine when I can spare a moment, so that’s kept me busy. That said, I’d like to get back to updating this blog as regularly as I can!

With theaters still shut down for the most part, or limited to retro films, streaming services are the only option for new content. With most of 2020’s bigger horror productions, including Halloween Kills and Candyman, pushed back to at least 2021, that’s given more attention to the already highly anticipated “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” Netflix’s 9-episode take on Henry James’ Gothic ghost stories, especially his novella The Turn of the Screw.

After finishing “Bly Manor” a few days ago, I’m still thinking about it, and I’m still undecided regarding how I feel about it as a whole. I thought Mike Flanagan’s reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House was quite strong. The fifth and sixth episodes specifically were some of the best examples of horror on the small screen that I’ve ever seen. The bent-neck lady was terrifying, and Flanagan did an excellent job diverging a bit from Jackson’s narrative, while still keeping most of her key ideas and themes in tact.

“Bly Manor,” however, is short on scares, at least compared to “Hill House.” Instead, the series is more of a Gothic Romance. The basic, and I mean VERY basic plot of The Turn of the Screw is introduced in the first episode. A young American, Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti), takes a job as a governess at Bly Manor, where she keeps watch over young Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith). The first few episodes explore Clayton’s trauma, specifically the tragic death of her boyfriend, thus the reason she fled the states and takes the job at the British estate. Yet, she can’t escape the past, and her boyfriend appears to her as a ghost with shiny golden glasses, to boot.

The kids are one of the highlights of the series, nearly matching what James penned. Miles is both devious and charming. Flora runs around saying “perfectly splendid,” as if she’s practicing to be a 19th Century aristocrat. Though the series takes place in the 1980s, it very much feels like a 19th Century Gothic tale, due largely to Maxime Alexandre and James Kniest’s cinematography. Fog rolls off the pond near the castle-like estate. Night time shots create a sense of foreboding. Darkened corridors and long hallways feel menacing.

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Yet, the ghosts in “Bly Manor” just aren’t that scary. The two main spirits featured in The Turn of the Screw, Peter Quint, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, and Miss Jessel, played by Tahirah Sharif, aren’t very threatening. Quint is abusive in a totally different way in “Bly Manor,” but he’s never…. that terrifying. Quint is a violent drunk in the novella. When Miss Clayton sees his ghost throughout the estate, he’s horrifying. The recounting of his death is also hair-raising. With “Bly Manor,” even the scenes directly adapted from James’ work, like an image of Quint’s face in a mirror or window, just aren’t that spooky.

Additionally, “Bly Manor” adds a storyline about possession (I think?) and time skipping that just don’t work quite well. “Hill House” toyed with a non-linear timeline in regards to ghosts, but it worked better in that series. In “Bly Manor,” it’s rather confusing. There is also a brief storyline about Miles and Flora’s uncle, Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas), and his devious double. But that’s equally confounding..

All of that said, the eighth episode is a fantastic ghost story that provides context and background for the Lady in the Lake, a chilling spectral presence who haunts the residents at Bly. This episode is adapted from James’ story “The Romance of Old Clothes.” Once upon a time, the Lady in the Lake wasn’t faceless and water-logged. She was Viola, a wealthy woman with extravagant taste. Eventually, she marries, but she’s betrayed by her sister, Perdita (Daniela Dib), who moves in on her hubby when Viola falls ill. Viola is played by Kate Siegel, Flanagan’s wife who also played Theodora in “Hill House.” Siegel’s entrance to “Bly Manor” comes near the end of the series, but it’s worth the wait. The single episode contains nearly every trope of Gothic literature, including family betrayal, an ugly history that haunts the present, a failing English manor descending into financial ruin, and a vengeful ghost. It also sets up the finale quite well.

Overall, I need a few days to think about “Bly Manor” some more. Right now, the images and the cinematography stick with me most, especially shots of the foggy pond at night. But the ambiguity of James’ novella and some of its most terrifying scenes seem lost in this recent adaptation. There’s commentary about how ghosts and memories fade with time, hence the faceless Lady in the Lake. I’m afraid “Bly Manor” has that potential. I’m unsure what I’ll remember of the series months from now. I don’t know if this will stay with me the way “Hill House” did, but that’s okay. At least a 19th Century ghost story lives on for modern audiences.

If you want to check out another adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, I highly recommend The Innocents (1961).

Who’s Sleeping Next to Us?

(Photo from IFC Midnight)

Recently, I wrote a feature story on the films What Keeps You Alive (2018), currently streaming on Netflix, and Honeymoon (2014), one of my favorite horror films of the last decade. The article looks at how both films have a monster who is a significant other and use a rural setting to invoke the Otherness/monster. It’s a terrifying premise, that the one we love isn’t who we think they are. The article appears over at Signal Horizon. Check it out if you’re so inclined!

Centigrade: A Cold Survival Thriller

Genesis Rodriguez and Vincent Piazza in Centigrade (2020)

I’ll be honest. I’m not a fan of most survival films. The only one I really enjoy and still re-watch is Into the Wild. That had the advantage of being based on Jon Krakauer’s book and thorough research. It also had the benefit of featuring an incredibly sympathetic, idealistic protagonist, Chris McCandless. I also go back and reach Jack London’s short fiction from time to time and have taught it in American Lit and Literature and the Environment, but as for survival stories, that’s about as far as I go.

Recently, I was given a screener for Centigrade, IFC Midnight’s new film about a couple trapped in a car in artic Norway. (My full review here for HorrOrigins). There are a few aspects of the film that appeal to me. The fact its setting is so centralized and so small, specifically a car, intrigued me. A lot of well-known survival stories take place in actual nature, so I was intrigued by the idea of an interior setting within the larger naturalistic and unforgiving setting. Additionally, the film only has two characters, Matt (Vincent Piazza) and Naomi (Genesis Rodriguez). Because the setting is so specific and so claustrophobic, it allows their story to slowly unravel, specifically issues within their relationship, exacerbated by their perilous situation.

Additionally, the film was shot in an ice cream freezer for 3-4 days at a time, as director Brendan Walsh wanted to make the setting as real as possible, including encouraging Rodriguez and Piazza to fast while shooting to feel an actual sense of hunger and starvation. That said, the film toys with the idea that the story was based on a true story, but the characters are entirely fictional. It’s only based on a handful of accounts and research Walsh did about people trapped under feet of snow who somehow survived.

While parts of the story are a bit outlandish, Centigrade is one of the more intriguing survival thrillers I’ve seen in some time. The film just dropped on VOD.

For the Love of 80s Horror…

If you’re a horror fan, and if you have four hours to kill during these sweltering summer days, then I recommend checking out In Search of Darkness on Shudder.Written and directed by David A. Weiner, the doc goes year by year through some of the most iconic films of the decade. It also features interviews with the likes of Kane Hodder, Heather Langenkamp, John Carpenter, Barbra Crampton, just to name a few.

Additionally, the film tackles key characteristics and tropes that made the 1980s such a vibrant time for the genre. Is the doc perfect? No. I can think of several films that should have been featured, as opposed to some of the Friday the 13th sequels. I also question why some big names were left out of the doc. Tom Savini anyone? Maybe, he wasn’t available. Who knows. That said, it’s a must-see for horror fans and a heck of a lot of fun. For my full thoughts on In Search of Darkness, check out the review I did for HorrOrigins.

Two Directorial Debuts to Watch

The last week has seen the release of two films by first-time directors that I’m confident will end up on several year-end, best-of horror movie lists.

The first is the Shudder exclusive The Beach House, written and directed by Jeffrey A. Brown. The film follows two 20-somethings whose relationship is at a crossroads, and in an attempt to salvage it, they spend a weekend at the beach. Yet, it turns into an aquatic nightmare for them as an environmental contagion takes over the town. The movie has such a sense of dread, especially in its last act, that it may not be for everyone. But it’s one of the most effective ecological films and body horror flicks that I’ve seen in a while. Anyone into Lovecraftian horror should check it out. I reviewed it for HorrOrigins. The review is fairly spoiler free.

The second film, which released one day after The Beach House, is IFC Midnight’s Relic, marking the debut of Natalie Erika James. While The Beach House serves up summer scares and mostly takes place in daylight, Relic’s atmosphere and palate is far darker. Largely set in a creaky countryside home surrounded by a thick forest, the movie highlights the ravages of dementia. It’s a devastating, somber film that’s drawn comparisons to Hereditary and The Babadook. I also reviewed this one for HorrOrigins. I have no doubt Relic is a film that will continue to build buzz and will be talked about over the next several years. It’s the perfect example of how horror is the perfect vehicle to address more serious issues, in this case the aging process.

Pay attention to Brown and James. Their strong debuts make for promising careers ahead.

In Honor Of….

Anyone that knows me on a personal level well, or anyone who has read any of my poetry collections, knows that I lost my dad to cancer. I was young when this happened, and by young I mean 20, a junior in college. It happened fast. He was diagnosed by the end of my winter break that year, and by February, he died. When I learned of his diagnosis, I remember walking in the January cold, trying to process the news that my dad had throat cancer. I didn’t cry. I don’t even think I screamed. I do remember how tightly I clenched my fists that hung at my sides as I walked. Yet, I knew something was wrong after he picked me up from college and stopped on the side of the PA Turnpike to vomit. He also thinned since I saw him last. Only a month or so into the new semester, I received a call that I had to come home again because my father was essentially on his death bed, and I remember that drive home with my sister and the emotions that ran through us both that blustery February day, as we knew driving home meant we were driving home to say goodbye to our dad.

Last year, I was asked to write a piece of flash non-fiction for the Schuylkill Valley Journal’s blog for an “Origin of Interest” series they ran. I was asked to write one about my love of the horror genre. It didn’t take me long to start writing. Some of the best memories I have between my father and I involve watching films like Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, and Friday the 13th with him. He took me to Blockbuster many Friday nights, where I roamed the aisles and picked out another horror VHS rental. Beyond that, he also fed and supported my obsession to turn my childhood home into a graveyard every Halloween, complete with mannequins that occupied the porch, including Dracula in a coffin and a bloody chef. He worked wonders with fishing wire.

In honor of Father’s Dad and my dad, I’m sharing again that piece I wrote for the SVJ blog.

To all the dads out there, Happy Fathers Day.

Shirley, Madness, and the Writing Life

Josephine Decker’s Shirley is a movie I want to show to all of my creative writing classes and then discuss its portrayal of the writing process. Elisabeth Moss is brillant as the famed horror writer, but beyond her spellbinding performance, there are a lot of layers to discuss.

First, the film plays with the perceptions of Jackson, that she was a witch, that she was sick in the head. It also depicts her as an outsider in the small college town, where her husband teaches literature at Bennington. Perhaps most importantly, when thinking about writing students, the film shows that writing is hard work. There is no illusion in that regard. Jackson becomes obsessed with her second novel, Hangsaman, about a missing college girl. In a fevered state of mind, Jackson works on new pages literally from morning until night, through dinner. There is no muse that just shows up. She goes to the desk.

Additionally, Decker is focused on portraying the struggles women faced in the 1950s to be heard, even someone with Jackson’s success. There is a fictitious subplot about a young couple that feeds this larger narrative. In the context of the film, it works.

I have a lot more to say about Shirley, which I shared in this review for Signal Horizon. Shirley is currently streaming on Hulu. Give it a watch and let me know what you think.

Celebrating the Success of The Wretched and an Interview with Its Directors for HorrOrigins

With theaters still closed due to COVID-19, film distributors have had to find creative ways to get their films shown. IFC Midnight took a risk by releasing some of their newer titles at drive-ins, including The Wretched, a witch creature feature written and directed by brothers Drew and Brett Pierce. The result of IFC’s move is the fact that a small indie horror film is now the #1 film in the country.

I interviewed the Pierce brothers for HorrOrigins. We talked about their dad’s work on The Evil Dead, their love of independent and genre cinema, and the success of their film. The story of their success is also the story of the film industry right now. With theaters closed, distributors, especially smaller ones, need to find a way to reach audiences. Now, IFC Midnight is releasing more of their films at drive-ins. Does this mean the pandemic will cause a revival of the drive-in? That remains to be seen. Theaters will reopen, maybe as soon as mid-late summer, but who knows if they’ll sell many tickets. Drive-ins offer a safe alternative. For now, at least, The Wretched is the story of a small indie film succeeding in incredibly tough circumstances. That’s a story worth celebrating.

Antrum: A Clever Use of Found Footage

Due to COVID-19, theaters are still closed. Streaming services are the only means to view new content, other than drive-ins. The releases of bigger horror films, like Candyman and Antebellum, have been delayed. As a result, this has given the chance for indie films to find an audience. Recently, an article at AV Club caught my attention regarding the success of Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made. It snagged Amazon Prime’s top-trending title last month, during the height of isolation. Though initially hesitant to watch the flick, namely because it sounded gimmicky, I gave it a stream. On the one hand, the low-budget film (shot for $60,000), has a few aspects going for it, namely its 1970s aesthetic. That said, the plot and characters are too thin, and the result is a film that doesn’t add up to much of a cohesive plot or narrative arc.

Directed by David Amito and Michael Laicini, Antrum is initially about “the deadliest film ever made,” so cursed that a theater in Budapest burned down when it screen the film in 1988. Faux film reviewers and horror hounds are interviewed in the opening minutes, and it’s a clever use of the exhausted found footage subgenre. It builds hype for the movie within a movie, that is the story of Oralee (Nicole Tompkins) and Nathan (Rowan Smyth), siblings who embark on an adventure to dig a hole to the pits of hell to rescue their recently euthanized dog because Nathan has visions he’s been sent to the fiery place, for whatever reason. Oralee locates a spot, telling her brother it’s where Lucifer landed when he was kicked out of heaven. They grab shovels and start digging, and that’s about as much of a plot as the film offers.

From there, the story loses its narrative and descends into a film of bizarre, often disjointed images, some of them unsettling. There are strange noises in the woods. At one point, an image of Lucifer’s face lingers on the screen longer than the creepy flashes of Pazuzu’s face that haunt The Exorcist. There are even a few Nazis hanging around a massive demonic statue, but they serve no real purpose to the plot, other than a sense of danger.

If you set narrative gripes aside, the film deserves some props for the way it was shot, mimicking 1970s Satanic cult films. The grainy quality serves the film well, especially when juxtaposed with some of the images that flash on screen. It’s a clever aesthetic and perhaps the best aspect of Antrum.

There’s also something to be said for the attention the film has garnered. The AV Club article notes that when it payed at film festivals in 2018, it caught the attention of Eduardo Sanchez, co-director of The Blair Witch Project, the film that started the found footage hype back in 1999. Like Antrum, The Blair Witch Project used found footage to bend reality. It had one of the most clever marketing campaigns in all of horror history, creating missing person posters for its three lead actors and a website during the early days of the internet dedicated to their “disappearance.” Antrum uses fake interviews to hype what follows in the rest of the film.

Antrum won’t have the legacy and influence of The Blair Witch Project. No other found footage film will, but it does do something unique and interesting with the tired found footage genre. It’s slow-hype and word of mouth, including teens on TikTok debating if Antrum is actually a cursed film, is commendable, especially for a film shot on a budget of $60,000 by a studio (Uncork’d Entertainment) known for knock-offs and b movies. COVID has given some indie movies a bigger audience. Give Antrum a stream. Ignore its narrative in-cohesion and enjoy its 70s Satanic art house aesthetic.